JFK Club History
Recollections from a Longtime Member
By Bill Grippo, summer 2021
The Franklin Township JFK Club originated soon after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. As a matter of fact, on the day after his burial in Arlington Cemetery, the Township Council made a proclamation naming JFK Boulevard in honor of the deceased president. A copy of the proclamation by the Council can be viewed at the recently-constructed memorial of President Kennedy at the bottom of JFK Boulevard near Easton Avenue. Former Councilman Rajiv Prasad took the lead in creating this wonderful monument.
In its almost 60 years of existence, the Club has had a wide variety of leadership. Since there are too many names to recall or to find by research, this overview provides a summary of my recollections. One fact is certain: there has always been a very strong Democratic plurality in Franklin Township and, when properly mobilized, it wins elections. The Club has not only been the social arm of the local Democratic Party but also its fundraising assistant and, in a way, a training ground for candidates for Council and for many political appointments to the boards and commissions in town.
Contributions: Giving Back to the Community
The JFK Club wants to spread our message of hope and compassion. We believe that a single action can make a difference in the community, and that collective action can greatly impact the world. Through advocacy and outreach activities, our team works tirelessly each day to contribute their part to the greater good.
The JFK Club has supported, as an organization and through individual members, many Township charities and non-profits. Over the years, the Club established its own scholarship and has given generously to Franklin High School graduates. Club members have held leadership positions in civic organizations such as Rotary, Lions, and Jaycees and they have made a significant impact and contribution to the quality of life in Franklin Township.
Although Franklin Township had many registered Democrats, the Republican Party was often more successful. For years, the local election for Council seats was held in May. Because the GOP fared better in getting the vote out at that time of year, it controlled the Council for many years. Councilman Rickey Sumter, of the 4th Ward, was the only Democrat to hold a Council seat for years.
Through the efforts of the municipal committee, the JFK Club and then-Mayor Upendra Chivukula, enough signatures were gathered to change the election date in Franklin Township to November, as it currently is. After finally making that change in 1994, we won five seats in the 1995 election as a result and have dominated the Council ever since.
Through the years, many heroes have kept the JFK Club vibrant. Because we have very little documentation on every leader who made a difference, some historical contributions may be missing from this overview.
Over the years, the Club has been continually active in social and legislative concerns and has conducted vigorous candidate campaign support with phone banks, sign and literature drops, fundraising and GOTV efforts. The Club is essentially a grooming ground for future leaders in the party.
In the 1960s, the club members would meet at Hillcrest School on the fourth Monday evening of the month. Meetings continued on Mondays to best accommodate active members because Council was held on Tuesdays and all Democratic Council members belonged to the JFK Club.
One of the earliest Club presidents was Anthony Marinucci, an attorney. His slate of officers comprised Helen Finch, Maurice Davidson, Julius Furrier, Ronnie Storch and Barbara Hayes.
Leaders in a Growing Township
As the 1960s moved toward the ‘70s, housing along JFK Boulevard increased with construction of the Levitt Homes,where many people from New York found affordable residences. Many were of the Jewish faith and they contributed a great deal to the cultural and political development of the growing township. Temple Beth El on Hamilton Street had a majority of our Democratic voters who became very involved in the town and the public schools. Members of the Temple and many members of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens became the backbone of the Democratic leadership in town and, subsequently, the JFK Club.
As Levitt built hundreds of homes, he was required to build two public schools. Conerly Road School and MacAfee Road School both broke ground in the mid-1960s. As a “fun” note, the Levitt developer was an ardent fan of the Giants football team and many streets in Levitt are named after famous Giants. Many people probably remember Rosey Grier, Jimmy Patton, Charlie Conerly, of course, Frank Gifford, Pepper Johnson, and Tom Landry. Franklin Township has grown from a population of roughly 20,000 in 1960 to more than 62,000 in 2010.
Other Club heroes, in more recent years, include Nancy Henry (first female and African-American mayor), Harry Van Houten (former Board of Education president) and teacher Frieda Warner, who was a Council member from 1978 to ‘82 and a deputy mayor. Both have scholarships named after them for the Democratic Party. They blazed a trail, both locally and in the county, during those times. Frieda was also municipal chair and was recognized with the county Eleanor Roosevelt Award. Phil Beachem was a young mayor during the 70s and ‘80s and incredibly involved in the workings of the JFK Club.
The Van Houten/Warner combination worked with amazing Democrats who are remembered to this day. They include former mayors John Clyde, who was an environmental hero in town, and Rickey Sumter, former Council member Ted Chase, Shirley Eberle -- who recently served on the Council together with Brian Regan, Fred McKenzie and Wandra-Ashley Williams -- Jim Hunter (founder of the NJ Orators), Dennis Auciello (chairman), Bob Fenske and Stan Cutler (chairman), Bob Rossenwasser (chairman), Dave and Tedi DeVries (Tedi was also BOE president), Bob Thomas, Bruce McCracken, and Al Caesar -- all longtime members -- and Democratic leaders on various boards, including Harry Weber and Alex Kuzma (mayor).
Credit must be given to many former Democratic members of both the Council and the JFK Club who served Somerset County diligently by running for freeholder in an all-Republican county when few wanted to.
During the time when Somerset County elected a Freeholder Board (now called commissioners), many JFK Club members were called upon to help the county in its efforts to find candidates.
Hard working, loyal Democrats, such as former Mayor James Walker from the early 1980s, ran. Other longtime JFK Club leaders were John Loos, Brian Regan, a former councilman, and Harry Weber.
Somerset County never won but once in the early 80’s with Mike Ceponis, a surprise victory happened. The Republican county seemed destined to remain “red.” However, in 2019, the national scene changed and so did Somerset County. Franklin resident Shanel Robinson broke this barrier and was elected a Somerset County freeholder. Under the leadership of County Chairwoman and state Vice Chair Marguerite “Peg” Schaffer and the efforts of the JFK Club, the County in 2019 created a “blue” wave. Today, all Somerset County seats, including our Sheriff Darrin Russo, the first Democrat in the position, are held by Democrats.
We are immensely proud to have had two assemblymen – Upendra Chivukula in the past and Joseph Danielsen currently– who are both active Club supporters. Joe has been the champion of legalizing marijuana in the state of New Jersey. Our current Commissioner director, Shanel Robinson, the first African-American commissioner for the county, is a past JFK Club president and also served on the Council.
Dr. Phil Kramer is Franklin’s first Democratic-elected mayor in recent years. Current Council members Council Members | Township of Franklin, NJ (franklintwpnj.org) are deputy mayor James Vassanella, of Ward 5, Sivaraman Anbarasan, Council at large, Kimberly Francois, at large, Crystal Pruitt, at large, Ted Chase of Ward 1, Shepa Uddin, Ward 2, Charles Onyejiaka, Ward 3, and Carl Wright of Ward 4.
Currently, in 2021, the JFK Club is under the steady leadership of President Deana Luchs who, with Municipal Chairman Ron Jordan, has made amazing strides in developing the Democratic base in Franklin Township.
The Club has many committees and members who have taken leadership positions and helped to increase the organization’s membership. Dr. Alex Kharazi, chair of the Franklin Township Interfaith Council, is also the chair of the JFK Club Membership Committee. The Franklin JFK Club has a robust membership who meet monthly. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the leaders have used Zoom to provide wonderful and insightful programs.